Piety, Pranks and Parties: Easter medieval style

In medieval times, life revolved around the church, and the year was marked out by a series of religious festivals, customs and holidays of which Christmas and Easter were the main events. But contrary to many a modern perception, people in the Middle Ages had more time off than we do today. And although there was a good deal of attending church and religious rituals and processions, these did bring the community together, and they also knew how to kick back and have fun.

The Easter period would start with Shrove Tuesday, a secular holiday involving boisterous games and sports. After this, the fun gave way to the fasting period of Lent, when churches were hung with veils and crosses shrouded. Little observed today, if anything we brace ourselves to give up chocolate or booze for the requisite 40 days, but they took it much more seriously in the Middle Ages. Several foods were forbidden, including meat and eggs, so the diet switched to fish. But 40 days of fish could turn into a long old slog, and some people got sick of it, as can be seen by a letter written by a 15th century schoolboy: “Thou wilt not believe how weary I am of fish, and how much I desire that flesh were come again, for I have ate none other than salt fish this Lent.” Poor lad.

Medieval Lent fish.jpg

They ate a lot of fish in Lent!

Palm Sunday saw a procession of parishioners carrying yew or willow twigs following the Host and the Cross around the village, and on Good Friday the Cross was set on the altar, unveiled and the locals all ‘crept to the Cross’, bowing low, kneeling and kissing it, before it was placed along with the Host in a special ‘Easter Sepulchre’, surrounded by candles. These were extinguished on Easter Saturday, and a great Paschal candle was lit for an all-night vigil. Finally, on Easter morning the sepulchre was opened and the Cross and Host retrieved and taken to the altar for the Easter service. The formalities over, and customs observed, it was then time for the feasting and fun, and a holiday.

peasants-eating

Time to relax

Easter dinner was a lavish affair with no expense spared. As eggs were now back on the menu, they were a big part of the Easter celebrations. This was a time of exchanges between lord and tenant, with tenants giving eggs to their lord, while the lord gave his servants a slap-up meal. People also received new clothes which helped to secure social bonds between the lord, his staff and his tenants. It’s also thought that the custom of decorated eggs helped to celebrate the end of the Lenten fast, and a mention in the household accounts of Edward 1st in 1290 mentions some 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf or dyed, at a princely cost of 18 pence, being presented to the royal household at Easter. But unlike today, it wasn’t all over after the main event.

Eggs .jpg

Eggs were back on the menu, so they featured in the celebrations

Medieval feasting

The big feast – no expense was spared for the Easter celebrations

After the big feast, the week that followed was a holiday for everyone, celebrated with fun and games, with some communities even messing about on the water. The 12th Century chronicler William Fitzstephen describes mock target practice with lances taking place in boats on the Thames in London while: “Upon the bridge, wharfs and houses by the river side stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat.”

The holiday rounded off with Hocktide, another raucous two-day festival, when the men of the parish would tie up the women and demand a kiss before releasing them. The next day would see a reversal, with the women tying up the men, this time demanding money for their release which went into parish funds.

So, all in all, the medieval people were good at marking the significant points in the year, and they knew how relax and enjoy themselves. When I think of the madness of our fast-paced modern lives and our perception of how hard things were in the distant past, it’s strange to think that they got more time off work than we do now. And it’s this sense of community and tradition, their love of fun and feasting that’s another reason why I’m so hooked on the Middle Ages. So this weekend, I’ll raise a glass of mead to all my blogging friends and followers, and wish you all a Happy Medieval Easter!

peasants feasting in garden.jpg

Happy Easter!

53 thoughts on “Piety, Pranks and Parties: Easter medieval style

  1. What an absolute mine of information you are. I’ve never heard any of this stuff before but found it fascinating. I’m not a religious person, but the practice of not eating meat on a Good Friday is still in my psyche from the time I was growing up and certain rituals were adhered to.
    Another stupendous blog Alli. Thanks, and have a Happy Medieval Easter yourself .
    I hope there’s plenty of Easter Eggs knocking about the Templeton household tomorrow 🙂

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    • Thanks, Malcolm. Yes, they did it all properly back then. I’m not religious either, but I can appreciate how the catholic church brought everyone together and it probably made for more fun afterwards! I’m really glad you enjoyed the medieval Easter, and that you learned a bit about it too. I’m sure there’ll be a few eggs kicking around here tomorrow – and probably rather more mead! Have a great one, and thanks for reading. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the lovely comments, John, and I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Incidentally, I was thinking of you yesterday, as we were in Yorkshire and went to Richmond Castle. You’re so right, it’s a fantastic place and I loved it. I see what you mean about the similarity between it’s keep and that of Portchester – they’re very alike. 🙂

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  2. I really do enjoy reading your blogs Elli for all sorts of reasons. Keep ’em coming.
    As for chocolate Easter Eggs and Mead, I think it’s important to know which comes first – the Mead or the Egg? Please don’t tell me they go down the hatch at the same time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh goodness, no… The mead goes first, of course! Thanks so much for your kind comments, Malcolm, it really does mean a lot. I’m so pleased you enjoy the posts. And Cheers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Marilyn. 🙂 I wrote the post while I was in North Yorkshire, where I visited Richmond Castle – a fantastic place. Just back now, so looking forward to more chats. 🙂

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    • As you rightly say, short for many people, but fun as well. Not a bad deal after all. Thanks for reading, Marilyn, and for reblogging! 🙂

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  3. Terrific post Alli.. We take so many of our ‘traditions’ for granted little realising their true origins.. very interesting and I hope others will make their way over.. I have shared to Twitter but will also put the URL on LinkedIn and MeWe which I tend to use more than Facebook these days.. If ever you would like to share some of your posts as a guest writer.. you keep the copyright, let me know.. best wishes Sally.

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    • Oh goodness, Sally, that’s very kind. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about Easter in the medieval past. They did it in style! I’d love to share future posts, and feel free to reblog or share any. Thanks again, and I hope you and yours have a great Easter. 🙂

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    • Thanks Carol, and I’m really glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 Yes, absolutely, Hocktide was one of several rather mischievous holidays of the medieval year. There’s more where that came from. They really did know how to have fun… Happy Easter, and happy Hocktide! 🙂

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  4. Thanks for sharing, Alli. Makes us realize how fortunate and how much we all take for granted in modern times. “If you don’t know your history, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” – Little Miss HISTORY.

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  5. Alli lovely article, vivaciously written and deply informative. Although it is later I have just finished Ruth Goodman’s how to live like a Tudor and although your styles are very different the The light breezy and highly informative tone was exactly the same as what I enjoyed with her book. Looking forwardto reading more. Best regards Paul

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    • Hi Paul, sorry – I thought I’d replied to your comment but have just realised it may not have taken, so I’ll try again: thanks for your lovely comments and I’m very glad you enjoyed the tour through a medieval Easter. I admit, my heart is very much in the Middle Ages, and hopefully you’ll see why through the blog. It’s great to ‘meet’ you, and I look forward to some good chats – a fellow history buff is always welcome. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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  6. Wow! That really is so different. I loved to read how different their celebration was – games, fasting, FISH, feasting…and tying up, huh? Wow! Still sounds like a fun time for the community. Interesting to read and learn about!

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  7. Alli, I hope you and yours had a wonderful Easter and didn’t consume too much mead. Your reference to work in medieval times got me wondering what the working day/ week might have looked like. Far from the 9-5 that we know today…. who worked, when did they stop working etc etc ?

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    • Hi Albert, and thanks for your good wishes and comments. I hope you and yours had a great Easter too. Well, as for the working week in the middle ages, that’s another post altogether as there would be loads to say (which I’m happy to do!). But in a nutshell, you’re right, of course, the 9-5 wouldn’t have been recognised. Instead, the vast majority of medieval people would have worked the land, and they followed the rhythms of the seasons. They worked while it was light and stopped when it got dark, and this made for differences in the length of working day in line with the changing seasons. They had Sundays off as this was a religious day. Their calendar revolved around the farming cycle and the religious calendar. As they were all Catholic then, they had more religious days, saints days and celebrations than we do now. So believe it or not, they had more holidays than we do today! I hope that helps a little, and I’ll have to put my mind to elaborating a bit in a future post. Thanks for reading, Albert, and for your interest, as always. 🙂

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  8. A great post! In Spain Easter begins on Palm Sunday, followed by Holy Week and ending on Easter Sunday. Throughout the week there are many parades, fiestas, celebrations, religious processions, lavish meals and other Easter traditions dating back to medieval times. I attended a Maundy Thursday Easter parade this year which took me back to the time of Jesus. Incredible.

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    • That sounds wonderful, Darlene, and more in line with the medieval way of doing things. Thanks for sharing this with me, and I’m glad you had such a great time – it sounds amazing. Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

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